The U.S. Armed Forces are in quite a battle these days. They’re caught between a president determined to make substantial cuts in defense investments and a Congress increasingly intolerant with wasteful spending.
All this while following a Rube Goldberg set of legislative mandates and having a nation to defend. In today’s Washington, there is little the military can do to run this gauntlet without getting bruised and beaten.
The Pentagon cannot keep the president and Congress from playing politics with the budget. But it can adopt practices that make it harder for politicians to make military procurement the scapegoat for the bloated federal budget — by showing that the Armed Forces are good consumers.
President Obama is not just slowing the growth of defense; he is cutting defense spending. Under his plan, the level of investment in defense wouldn’t return to fiscal year 2010 spending levels for a decade.
That would make it a real challenge to replace equipment worn out by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as aged systems remain in the field long past their expected service life — as well as buy “next generation” systems that will ensure that the U.S. can best potential adversaries.
Acquisition — the process of developing and buying new systems — has been chronically under-funded for decades. The president’s proposal worsens the problem by calling for a reduction of almost $38 billion (17 percent) in the budget for getting new capabilities in just three years — without accounting for inflation.
By contrast, the proposals submitted by the House Budget Committee and the Republican Study Committee call for sustained levels of defense investment. Even that wouldn’t be enough to make up for the prolonged post-Cold War “procurement holiday” imposed on the Pentagon. But they would stem the dangerous erosion in the capabilities needed to defend U.S. vital interests worldwide.
It remains to be seen what Washington will spend to give the men and women of the U.S. military what they need to defend the nation. But Pentagon officials don’t have to wait to get their own act together in the meantime.
They can lay the groundwork for a renaissance in defense investment — and create trust and confidence — by using the resources Congress has allocated wisely. Here are three steps that will help:
• Keep life-cycle costs in mind. When the order comes to cut budgets, there is an overwhelming temptation to grab short-term savings that will impose massive long-term costs. For example, 80 percent of the cost of aviation systems is spent maintaining and using the aircraft. It is often cheaper to buy new, more expensive planes than to keep old planes flying.
• Fight for export control reform. Export controls are meant to prevent sensitive technologies from falling into the wrong hands. They are not supposed to put U.S. defense industries at a competitive disadvantage. But there are plenty of signs that this is exactly what is happening. Outdated controls weaken the U.S. defense industrial base and prevent robust cooperation with friendly and allied nations. It is in the military’s interest to champion the reform cause with the administration and Congress.
• Adopt performance logistics. Saving money in fixing, maintaining and supporting military systems is the most cost-effective means to free up dollars to invest in defense modernization. Performance-based logistics can increase the efficiency and lower the cost of the military’s logistical system through well-designed partnerships between government-run depots and private contractors, offering savings of up to $32 billion a year.
There are other steps Congress and the administration could take to make defense procurement more effective. These include legislative reforms that allow the Pentagon to adopt auditing best practices, procurement reforms that let the services undertake efficiencies instead of just layering on bureaucracy, and passing an adequate defense budget on time.
The Pentagon, however, doesn’t have to wait on the rest of Washington to get its act together. The American people say they want the government to provide for the common defense, not be wastrels of defense. If the Armed Forces can show that they understand that, they can win the budget battle.
James Jay Carafano works at The Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington.